Thousands of parents are effectively working for nothing because what they earn goes straight out of the window on childcare costs.
That's the bleak finding of a major survey by the national debt charity CCCS. Some parents – mainly mums – are left so skint after forking out on care for their kids, plus travel costs to and from work, that they would be better off unemployed.
In fact, many have decided to give up work altogether because it just isn't worth it, while others stay in jobs that hardly pay the bills because they are so scared of jumping off the career ladder and never finding work again.
It's a situation that I, and other parents of children in my neighbourhood, can relate to only too well. I was made redundant two years ago and when I couldn't find another job, my wife and I swapped roles.
She went out to work while I took on the responsibilities she used to have as a working-from-home mum.
Of course, school runs, nagging about homework, moaning about kids tidying their rooms and trying to keep children entertained throughout the looooooong summer holidays can we very rewarding! But it's not for everyone, and I decided that I would rather go to an office than be cooped up in my back bedroom trying to scrape a living as a freelance writer.
However, when I was eventually offered a job earlier this year, my wife and I decided I should turn it down: because, although we would have been slightly better off, income-wise, when we factored in the hassle of finding suitable childcare and the stress of both of us working and the impact that would have on our kids, we decided we would, overall, be poorer than if I stayed at home.
According to the Daycare Trust, an average part-time nursery place in our part of the world (sunny London) is £126 per child each week (this compares to £86 in the West Midlands).
That's more than £6,000 per child a year. For our three, that's £18,000. Net! It's an issue that hits low-income families – especially single parents – hardest.
One mother I know, Tina, 35, has four kids under nine years old. When the father scarpered, she was forced to quit her job as a hairdresser because she couldn't afford to pay a childminder.
But another mum who lives nearby chose to stay in work, even though her wallet is considerably lighter in her life before she had a baby. She and her husband discussed the idea of her not going back to work in the marketing department on a magazine after her maternity leave but decided it was too risky in the long term.
"The instant you leave, you're forgotten," Annie told me. "And then it's very hard to get back."
She is now part of the phenomenon called 'pay-neutral'. This means that a worker's expenses – primarily childcare and travel costs – wipe out their entire net earnings.
The problem is particularly acute for those on low incomes, according to CCCS. Almost 40,000 parents sought help from CCCS last year, and two-thirds of the 1,745 who said pregnancy was the reason for their debt problem earn less than £20,000 a year.
The people the CCCS saw last year in the under-£10k income bracket had a monthly budget deficit of £54. Those earning between £10k and £20k had an average £16 left over each month after paying living expenses. But rather than drop out of the workforce, these 'pay-neutral' women choose to take the hit in the hope that by continuing to work they will safeguard their future earnings.
Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the equal pay campaign, the Fawcett Society, said that the current economic climate means that, for many parents, working no longer makes financial sense.
She told the Observer: "Finding affordable, quality childcare is a nightmare. Costs are some of the highest in Europe and families' ability to pay has decreased as changes to things like working tax credit mean there's less in household budgets.
We're really concerned at the number of women forced to give up their jobs because it no longer makes financial sense to bring money in, only to see it all go out again for childcare.
"But we also worry about those women feeling pressure to return to work earlier because they feel their future career and earnings will be jeopardised if they don't."
So what can be done about it? Of course, some parents have struck a perfect balance, combining raising their kids with a rewarding career.
My neighbour, Lucy, 46, works three days a week and so gets to spend four days with her seven-year-old son. She is well paid as an advertising executive because she has stayed on the ladder, even while having her two older, now teenage, sons. But she's also married to a highly-paid professional man, which facilitates all the added extras that make life a pleasure not a chore.
School playgrounds are alive with discussion about the 'pay-neutral' problem, but it's clear there isn't a catch-all solution.
One woman summed the situation up succinctly: "The debate is whether parents should pay for their own children, or choose to give up work to look after their own kids. Or are the benefits to society of new children and keeping people active in work so great that society should pool their resources together to pay for this?"
Another added: "The Government really needs to do something to help working couples with childcare costs.
"I don't get why many government places in nurseries are filled by children whose parents don't work. If you don't work you can mind your own kid during the day."
And another said: "What the vast majority of working couples are doing whilst their children are small is protecting their long-term earning potential by maintaining their employment - they are making the trade-off of working to pay child-care for a few years in the knowledge that once they're child goes to school full-time their income will rise again and they will still have a job to go to (protecting themselves in case of divorce/illness or redundancy of partner/etc.)
"In the current economic climate, I think that anyone not doing this is extremely brave, given the current lack of jobs and near impossibility of getting one, even for people who do not have a three to five year gap in their employment history."